It is early spring and most farmers are checking their fields, ready to plant. But Pete Gengler not only raises 12-hundred acres of organic vegetables in southeast Minnesota.
He also runs the third generation, family-owned frozen food operation, where year round, vegetables, fruits and edible soybeans are packaged into more than a dozen frozen retail products.
This operation boasts being the oldest grower-slash-processor of organic frozen foods in the country … established in 1943, long before "organic" became a "buzz word" in the food industry.
But to hear company president Gengler talk, entering the organic frozen food aisle was initially not a deliberate plan. It was, basically, a logical outgrowth of the family's other businesses …which, dating back to the early 1900s, included farming, running a lumberyard, and harvesting ice with a team of horses on their manmade lake. When mechanical refrigeration came about, Gengler's grandfather and great grandfather built a locker plant … and the rest, as they say, is "frozen food" history.
Pete Gengler, President, Sno Pac Foods, Inc., Caledonia, Minnesota: "My grandpa started growing strawberries and he would freeze them at the locker plant. Then about that time the war came around they started growing more vegetables like peas and it just kind of grew from there. I don't know if it was a definite business plan like we'd have outlined today, but I guess our family always had about ten things going at one time and everything fit together."
It has obviously "fit together" just fine. With the help of family members: mother, sister, and brother …plus a fulltime and seasonal staff of 50, annual company sales have gone from one (M) million dollars ten years ago to a projected more than three million dollars this year.
Production also has tripled, with processing of fruits, vegetables and soybeans to reach five million pounds this year.
Obviously, the Genglers can no longer grow every crop -- in every quantity -- they need.
They purchase from other farmers, mostly in the Midwest. And they contract with nearby farmers to grow peas, green beans and soybeans.
In some instances, Sno Pac also helps educate farmers wanting to learn organic farming techniques. Ed Myrah is one of those farmers, who after years of growing corn and beans "conventionally", decided in 1999, to devote some of his acreage to organic agriculture.
Ed Myrah, farmer, Spring Grove, Minnesota: "We have Sno Pac close by and so I decided to give it a try. That land was coming out of a ten year, CRP program so it fit in that, and I thought it would be good. It had been chemical free for ten years and I thought that be a good time to get started."
Last year, Myrah grew organic soybeans for Sno Pac. This year, he would grow 45 acres of peas.
Sno Pac sets the field standards and dictates the time of planting. It also provides the seed and planter and in mid summer, Sno Pac employees harvest the pea crop. With so much direct oversight from Sno Pac, it may seem somewhat like micro-management. But such involvement is necessary says the company president … in order to maintain a consistent product in an ever-competitive arena of retail food marketing.
Pete Gengler, President, Sno Pac, Caledonia, Minnesota: "It is tough to compete with the larger companies that have bigger marketing budgets. But a lot of people are so loyal to the smaller companies like ourselves and we offer them, I think, a very excellent product."
"Excellent product" notwithstanding, after 60 years of being a primary provider of organic frozen produce, competition is increasing ... and not just from other "mom and pop" companies. For example, Sno Pac's largest competitor is Cascadia Farms, owned by food giant General Mills.
To stay competitive in the freezer aisle, Sno Pac must keep up with consumer food trends including the use of soy.
Within the last few years, they came out with soycatash, a mix of sweet beans, sweet corn and red peppers …and edamame, which is a soybean harvested while still green, frozen in its pod and eaten as a snack
Pete Gengler, President, Sno Pac, Caledonia, Minnesota: "We started doing the edamame and the shelled edamame, which we call sweet beans, about ten years ago. When we first started experimenting with it, basically, and that's become probably half our business is the soy business right now."
The soy foods may have sold themselves, but at the farm level, it was a more difficult sell job. Gengler said farmers at first didn't want to grow the beans because the crop didn't qualify for the Loan Deficiency Payment. He said it took several visits with his congressman to change the Farm Service Agency's federal regulations.
Pete Gengler, President, Sno Pac, Caledonia, Minnesota: "The FSA was saying that they're a vegetable and they were saying that they didn't qualify because of that, for LDP payments. Basically, I had to give them a little bit of an education on what edamame actually was and that they were actually soybeans. They changed their rule book actually, the FSA rulebook."
Changing the rules … and changing with the times has kept Sno Pac a viable player in the organic frozen fruit and vegetable industry for decades.
It is enough to give the Gengler family farm the confidence it's food business can survive in an industry often run by large food corporations.
Pete Gengler, President, Sno Pac, Caledonia, Minnesota: "We intend to stay a family operation. I think that we'll be able to at least hold our own in the market. If we double in size, I would say that, that'd be good for us."
For Market To Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.